The Outer Banks has a long standing history of American firsts. I’m sure you’ve heard of First in Flight and First National Seashore. But did you also know that it was the first Light of Freedom, first English Colony, the first English born child in the New World, and the first hang gliding school in the USA?
We learned all of this and more on an entertaining guided walking tour of historical Manteo, a pretty coastal town skirting Shallowbag Bay on the eastern Side of Roanoke Island.
Downtown Manteo (pronounced Man-ee-o) is made up of just a few streets surrounding the historic courthouse, which Andy Griffith, in his fictional town of Mayberry will tell you, that’s the way a community should be.
Mayberry, and its characters, were mostly inspired by the life and people of Manteo, where native North Carolinian, Andy Griffith, moved in 1947 to take a job as a soldier in "The Lost Colony”. Manteo quickly became the home of his heart and his final resting place in a grave on his waterfront property.
Our tour guide, retired Police Chief, Francis D’Ambra was a personal friend of Andy’s, and can share many stories for devout fans of the show and actor.
As we’re Gen X and younger, our knowledge was limited, so Chief focused more on the 400+ year history of firsts and ‘Land of New Beginnings’ that have made Manteo and the surrounding barrier islands a unique and special place to visit.
Chief has been running the 90-minute, Original Manteo Walking Tour since 2003. He stopped the tours for a while to focus on his Chief duties but, since retiring as police chief, he has now returned to running his walking tours full-time.
Tour guide, Francis D’Ambra
Such is his passion for history that Chief states, “if I didn’t choose a career in the police force, I would have been a history professor” Now that’s the kind of walking tour guide you want. Tours are limited to 25 and are catered to mostly adults, but our 10 year old Savannah was so taken with the stories on the tour, she asked me mid-way through the tour if she could write a blog post on it.
A Land of New Beginnings
We started our tour in the town’s central rotunda where the Old Tranquil Inn once stood and where a magnificent magnolia tree still stands. Over the years it saw guests such as President Franklin Roosevelt and Orvill and Wilbur Wright.
Across the street is the new Tranquil Inn (once the place of the other hotel in town, the Roanoke Inn) which has seen guests such as Richard Gere and Diane Lane with the filming of Nights of the Rodanthe. Chief shows us old photos in his album so we can get a look at how this town once was.
The new Tranquil Inn
It’s here that we learn more about Roanoke Island's beginnings, from its original inhabitants the Algonquin Indians, to the arrival, and mysterious disappearance of the first English colonists who were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s mission to settle the New World.
You can learn the story behind this at the original site on the northern part of the island at Fort Raleigh Historic Site. During the summer months the oldest outdoor drama in the USA, The Lost Colony, reenacts this story.
We move down to the waterfront to the bridge that takes you over the waters to the 25 acre Roanoke Island Festival Park. Berthed at one of the Festival Park’s piers, we see the Elizabeth II, a replica of the 1587 wooden, square-rigged sailing vessel that brought the colonists over. You’ll be amazed that this 69ft ship carried about 115 people on a trip that was “Journey of the Dead.”
During the warmer months at the park, you can experience firsthand how the early Algonquin people lived, explore a replica English settlement, and go aboard the boat.
The park also has walking trails and is a venue for concerts, festivals and weddings. To the locals, the island is unknown as Ice Plant Island as it was the place of the first commercial ice plant in the world - another Manteo first.
A Tumultuous and Treacherous Land
As we move from the waterfront area, down Queen Elizabeth Ave, and over to the George Washington Creef Park, we learn how ferocious weather, swashbuckling pirates, and rum runners have helped shape its land and culture.
What captured my attention just as much as the stories of the people that have lived or passed through here, was the insight into the ecological diversity of the Outer Banks.
This chain of barrier islands enclose the largest embayed estuary in the world. The Pamlico Sound is nearly 100 miles from north to south and more than 25 miles wide in some places.
It averages only 6-8 feet in depth, which means huge amounts of wildlife come to spawn in the waters. From porpoises, shrimp and plenty of fish, to bull and tiger sharks, and even manatees and alligators.
The unique ecosystems of this area means that the sound beaches, saltwater marshes, and patches of maritime forests located off the sound's borders provide an ideal habitat for wildlife.
These warm, shallow waters have created what Chief calls a “Suck Zone” once hurricanes get into the gulf stream, they get “sucked into North Carolina”.
During hurricanes, he and many locals have experienced the waters of the Pamlico Sound rush towards the west, leaving empty sandbars behind, and then returning a few hours later in a rush, spilling over onto the streets and yards of entire villages, and even sweeping up Chief’s car!
Chief has lived through 28 tropical systems, including four major hurricanes, none of which have swept him out of Manteo. At George Washington Creef Park, we stand under the Manteo Weather station which was established in 1904 by the Weather Bureau with Alpheus W. Drinkwater in charge.
Flags were flown to warn mariners of wind shifts or approaching storms, to foretell a rainy day, gale force winds, or flood tides. The weather station not only warns the country about impending weather conditions, but was also the telegram tower where Alpheus let the world know, “man has flown in Kitty Hawk”. It was also the first place where radio signal was transferred over water.
Learning about First in Flight
You can only imagine that with such a wild and unpredictable environment, the inhabitants would only turn a little wild themselves. Chief tells us of Buffalo City, which was once the largest town of the Outer Banks region. It was a logging boomtown prized for its cedar, cypress and juniper. It was also the moonshine capital of the world, even during Prohibition.
When demand dwindled and the trees were gone, it became a ghost town. It’s now one the protected Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, one of the best places on the Eastern seaboard for seeing birds, black bear, and red wolves.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Folklore says that the rum in the Outer Banks, produced by sugar from the Caribbean, was so potent that it was proclaimed as “strong enough to kill the devil.” giving us the Kill Devil Hills area of the Outer Banks.
Another legend has it that it’s named for the wreckage of barrels of rum washed up by any number of the more than 2,000 shipwrecks of the Outer Banks shoreline, giving it the nickname, “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
It is also believed that the ships were lured close to shore on dark nights by pirates (perhaps Blackbeard?). They would walk a horse, with a lantern tied to the neck of an old nag (horse) among the sand dunes causing the ships to wreck on the shallow shoals. And now we have the name of another popular Outer Banks beach town, Nags Head. Inside Manteo’s Lost Colony Brewery you’ll find evidence of this in their Nags Head IPA and Kill Devil Scotch Ale.
Lost Colony Brewery
If you want a stronger taste of this legend, Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo is the first legal distillery on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, serving up their very own small-batch ‘Kill Devil Rum.’
With the pirate history and being at the mercy of turbulent weather and treacherous shores, you can imagine how this area was once known as the Wild West of the East! But it’s not just pirates, old and new, getting drunk on this tiny island, but the chickens too. Chief tells of the wobbly behavior of his chickens once they’ve had a peckish nibble of the scuppernong tree in his yard.
The scuppernong grape vine, otherwise known as the Mother Vine, produces white muscadine grapes that begin to ferment on the vine due their high levels of sugar. It’s a very rare occurrence, but on Roanoke Island strange things seem to happen.
A 400-year-old scuppernong grapevine, of the muscadine family, still grows in the town of Manteo, North Carolina. It is thought to be the oldest cultivated vine in the USA, possibly the world. And so First in Grapes in the USA goes to the Outer Banks!
A Land of Light and Freedom
My favorite of the folklore stories has to be of Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced Body), which we visited the next evening for sunset. It’s a must-not miss Outer Banks experience.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
It’s said it’s so named for the bodies that would wash up on shore here from the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The far less interesting story is that it was named after an original land owner.
Over near the Bodie island Lighthouse, in 1880, Captain Richard Etheradge, a former slave becomes the keeper of the Pea Island Live-Saving station, which eventually becomes the beginnings of the US Coast Guard.
We hear about these as we stand at the bottom of the wooden boardwalk leading to Manteo's own lighthouse, The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. This small and quaint white building with red shingled roof sits over the water.
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
It doesn’t tower above the landscape like other lighthouses, as it's a river lighthouse, the only one in Dare County. It’s a replica of the original lighthouse that was constructed in 1877 at the southern entrance of the Croatan Sound in Wanchese to help both passing sailors and local fishermen find their way to port. Chief uses the symbol of the light to share the story of the First Light of Freedom.
After the Union’s first military victory of the Civil War at Fort Hatteras in August 1861, escaped slaves seeking the army’s protection began pouring onto the island.
Roanoke Island became known as a ‘safe haven’ and in 1863 a Freedmen’s Colony established to train and educate formerly enslaved African Americans so that they could participate in their own free and independent communities. It was the first community of its kind in North Carolina and was home to 3,500 formerly enslaved black Americans.
At Fort Raleigh Historic Site, a First Light of Freedom Memorial acknowledges the site of the Freedmans as part of the National Underground Railroad Network.
Chief had a way of bringing Outer Banks to life with his stories, both real and possibly real. His passion for the area pulled us into the Suck Zone of what makes Outer Banks so great. We finish our tour at what Chief calls the Line of Freedom. Where the cross honoring the American Revolution and those Americans who fought for their freedom from British tyranny stands.
One side of the cross lines up with the light house which represents Black Americans who fought for freedom from slavery. The other side lines up across the water to the Elizabeth II, the boat that brought the original colonists who were seeking freedom from religious persecution.
As we stand on this spot, Chief tells us one final story of when he met Buzz Aldrin at the 100 year anniversary of the First In Flight. Buzz recalls looking back at Mother Earth from the moon and not seeing any boundary lines. His message: “Drop the tribal fight. We are all from HERE.”
Something from every area of history of the USA happened here, or near to hear, on this little island between the barrier islands of the Outer Banks and the mainland of North Carolina that continues to show us that you can make the impossible possible.